Taking a page out of a pirate's playbook, Wells Fargo has lashed its customers to its masts. Image source: iStock/Thinkstock.

After it was revealed that thousands of Wells Fargo (WFC 1.57%) employees systematically defrauded potentially millions of customers between 2011 and 2015, it's tempting to think that the bank will experience a mass exodus of customers. In reality, however, that's unlikely to be the case.

Switching costs are to blame.

As banks have transformed over the last few decades into financial supermarkets, offering a variety of financial products and services, customers have become increasingly tied to their banks. The typical retail customer at Wells Fargo uses more than six of its products -- things like checking and savings accounts, credit cards, individual retirement accounts, mortgages, and car loans.

This makes switching banks much harder than if you just needed to move your checking account. Think about how much time it would take to close and open six new accounts. Not to mention that most people probably won't go through the hassle of refinancing their mortgage or auto loan just to bring their business elsewhere.

Banks know this and have taken it a step further. Have you ever wondered why they're willing to waive account fees if you set up direct deposit and bill pay? It's for the same reason that banks cross-sell other financial products and services: It lashes customers ever tighter to their masts.

This is particularly true for people who live paycheck to paycheck, which is a larger share of bank customers than you might imagine.

Imagine the delicate dance of switching your accounts to another bank if you had direct deposit and automatic bill pay. Some bills may start pulling from your new account immediately, while others may take a month or two to switch over. This means that you would need to leave funds in both accounts, which isn't a luxury available to people who deplete their accounts each month.

Data source: GoBankingRates.com. Chart by author.

According to a recent survey by GoBankingRates.com, a third (34%) of Americans today have savings account balances of $0 -- the number was 28% last year. A deeper dive into the survey shows that:

  • 42% of females have nothing in their savings accounts, as compared to 28% of males
  • And over 30% of every age group spanning from millennials to senior citizens has nothing in savings

It's worth keeping in mind that the Wells Fargo fraud was most likely perpetrated against people that fall within this group. After all, the more money you have, the more of a bank's financial products and services you're already likely to use. It seems reasonable to assume as well that those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder are more vigilant when it comes to personal finances than those at the bottom, making the latter easier for a bank to exploit.

The point here is that Wells Fargo will probably be impacted much less than one might expect, considering the nature and extent of its massive fraud -- at least when it comes to customer attrition. This is good news for investors in the California-based bank, but bad news for its customers.